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5 Teams Aim for the Moon This Year—and the $20 Million Google Lunar XPrize

The TeamIndus ECA rover. Image Credit: TeamIndus

 
Though space agencies from the Soviet Union, the United States, and China have notched Moon landings, no private company or organization has ever managed to duplicate the task. No private effort has even managed to achieve a launch manifest for a rocket—until now.

The Google Lunar XPrize is a competition to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, have it travel 500 meters, and provide video and imagery of the whole affair. The prize for being first: $20 million. The second-place team gets $5 million, and another $5 million goes to assorted prizes. 

In 2007, more than 30 teams registered to compete for that $30 million. Today, only five remain. Each one has a launch manifest (a scheduled ride) on one of four different rockets. To remain in the competition and win some part of the $30 million bounty, the missions must launch this year.

Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar XPrize, tells mental_floss, “What we are the most excited about is the fact that all five teams are approaching this challenge in unique ways, and we were thrilled to have five finalist teams come from all parts of the world.”

The race is fraught with perils, and despite having been manifested for flight, even reaching the launch pad will require the full measure of each team’s engineering know-how. Still, the Google Lunar XPrize foundation is confident that this is the year. “We are very optimistic that at least one team will launch by the December 31, 2017 deadline,” says Gonzales-Mowrer.

Meet the five teams to learn more about their mission goals and specs.

1. MOON EXPRESS

An illustration of the Moon Express MX-1E lander approaching the lunar surface. Image Credit: Moon Express

 
In 2010, Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Barney Pell formed Moon Express with the goal of applying the Silicon Valley philosophy of moving fast and iterating to the Moon problem. They’ve certainly applied Silicon Valley dollars, garnering $45 million so far in a fundraising effort that goes far beyond the competition. The company intends to establish a resource mining operation on the lunar surface, seeking such elements as oxygen and hydrogen that might be converted to water, breathable air, and used as an oxidizer for spacecraft propellant. Jain has described the Moon as the “eighth continent,” and he certainly has a point: At 37.9 million square miles, the lunar surface is smaller than Asia but larger than Africa.

The mission is set to launch this year atop a New Zealand-built Electron rocket from the company Rocket Lab USA. The Moon Express lander is called MX-1E, and it will perform a powered landing on the lunar surface, using its thrusters to perform a series of “micro hops” to cross the finish line. The spacecraft will be powered with hydrogen peroxide propellant—the same stuff that’s likely in your medicine cabinet, H2O2. Why hydrogen peroxide? Because hydrogen and oxygen harvested from the Moon might one day be able to be refined to fuel a future Moon Express spacecraft.

Such thinking is in keeping with the competition’s long-term goals, explains Gonzales-Mowrer, which includes stimulating "the larger conversation about building a lunar economy and bringing commercial enterprise to the Moon."

2. SPACEIL

An artist's rendition of the SpaceIL combo lander/hopper. Image Credit: SpaceIL

 
Like MoonEx, SpaceIL is no garage operation. The nonprofit organization is fueled by a $36 million budget. Their goal isn’t mineral mining, however, but inspiring an “Apollo effect”—that is spurring a STEM renaissance in Israel, where the company is based. To some extent, the competition is a race to be the fourth nation to plant a flag on the Moon, with Japan and India competing against Israel.

SpaceIL was founded by Eran Privman, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub—a deep bench of electrical and computer engineers. It was the first team in the Google Lunar XPrize to be manifested on a launch vehicle: a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. To travel the 500 meters, their spacecraft, which vaguely resembles a frog, will not roll on tracks or wheels, or skip along gently, but rather will make a single, giant hop to the finish line.

3. SYNERGY MOON

A March 2014 test of an Interorbital Systems Neptune rocket with a Synergy Moon payload aboard. Image Credit: Synergy Moon/Interorbital Systems

 
Led by Nebojsa Stanojevic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 countries are represented on the Synergy Moon team. Their hope is that their success thus far—and hopefully achievements to come—will foster other such cooperative international efforts, and prove what is possible when one approaches the world “with the creative drive of an artist and the problem-solving skills of an engineer,” they say.

Their pair of lunar vehicles are called the Tesla prospector rover and the Tesla surveyor rover. Though Synergy Moon has kept recent details and designs of the rovers close to its chest, in keeping with the artistic and international engagement aspects of the mission, they plan for “tourists, scientists, and prospectors to take control of the rovers for virtual excursions on the Moon,” according to their website. The robots will be launched on a Neptune rocket by Interorbital Systems. Upon arrival at the Moon, a small “tube sat” will deploy from the cruiser to establish communications, and the lander will begin its ascent. Once safely settled in Moon dust, the rovers will get to work, one returning high-resolution images, the other sniffing the lunar regolith for resources for eventual harvest and refinement.

4. TEAM INDUS

Members of TeamIndus with their lander. Image Credit: XPrize Foundation

Last year Team Indus won a $1 million milestone prize for its lander technology—money that has thrust the privately funded team forward in its likelihood of reaching the lunar surface. This is the only team from India, and, like SpaceIL, they hope their mission will be a sort of robotic ambassador for its country that will pay dividends by engaging and invigorating citizens, private industry, and even the Indian government, whose space agency is already making great strides at Mars. Rahul Narayan, a software engineer and entrepreneur from Delhi, is the mission’s leader.

The Team Indus rover ECA—seen at top—has a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy. The vehicle is solar powered, all-aluminum, and has four-wheel drive, and among its scientific payload is a high definition camera made by the French Space Agency. The rover will land autonomously in the Sea of Showers, roll away from the lander platform, link up with Earth, and begin transmitting. It is a straightforward lunar lander and rover—to the extent that it’s possible for any craft operating on the Moon to be described as such.

5. HAKUTO

Hakuto is Japanese for “white rabbit,” and refers to a Japanese story about a rabbit that can be seen in the crater shadows of the moon. The description is apt, too, as the Hakuto rover, shiny and sharp, weighs less than four kilograms, making it the world’s smallest planetary exploration rover.

“To reduce launch cost,” Tomoya Mori of Hakuto tells mental_floss, “we need to make our rover as light and small as possible. At the same time, however, the rover must meet the requirements to successfully accomplish the mission.” They achieved this miniaturization using microrobotics technology and commercial, off-the-shelf products.

Under mission leader Takeshi Hakamada, the mission has forged partnerships with nine players in the aerospace industry, who are assisting with everything from instrumentation to orbital design. Notably, Hakuto will catch a ride to the Moon on the same rocket as Team Indus—an Indian Space Research Organization rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Space
New NASA Satellite Called TESS Could Discover Thousands of New Planets

Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.

A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.

According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.

While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.

“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”

The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.

For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.

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